Pasties, Porkies and Petrol Panic

March 31, 2012

The political story of the week in the UK is the proposed strike of tanker drivers and the public reaction at the petrol pumps. But for a while, it jostled with the budget backlash triggered by the tax imposed on pre-warmed food in the budget

The two stories when taken together illustrate the dilemmas facing political leaders when attempting to ward off adverse publicity.

Pastygate

The pasty story begun with questioning of the chancellor George Osborne about his proposal in the budget to add tax to takeaway preheated foods. This issue was personalized by a question at a Parliamentary committee hearing. It challenged the feasibility of imposing VAT on a cooked product according to its temperature ‘relative to ambient’ [i.e. whether it had cooled down]. But it also implied that he was too posh to understand popular eating habits and therefor to help run the country. This continues the opposition attack about the Prime Minister and Chancellor being out of touch with the needs of public.

Mr Osborne stepped cautiously between dismissing the question as a joke, and trying to deal with its potential for political damage. But a day later [March 28th 2012] the Prime Minister David Cameron made a calculated effort to address the issue. He was, he noted, an enthusiastic consumer of such snacks. But with the ad-man’s instinct for vivid speech, he created a narrative in which he fondly remembered his last such pasty. Unfortunately for him and his advisors, the background research had managed to identify a company location that had gone bust at the time of the alleged pasty-snacking. The story and inevitable clichéd headlines (such as mine) took off.

Don’t panic

How not to be a leader. In England, the concept of inept leadership is captured in the classic TV series Dad’s Army. The bungling officer Captain Mainwaring is mimicked by the even more gloriously inept Corporal Jones who spreads panic in each episode accompanied by his catch-phrase ‘don’t panic’.

Enter Corporal Maude

Francis Maude for the Government addressed the tanker strike’s consequences but seems to have triggered panic buying at the pumps.

The Corporal Jones theme was widely deployed in the media, with Francis Maude lampooned as Corporal Jones. Here’s BBC correspondent Nick Robinson:
Ministers risk looking like Corporal Jones in TV’s Dad’s Army as their insistence that there is no need to panic about the possibility of an impending strike by tanker drivers looks like, well, panic.

It’s clear that Francis Maude went more than a little off-piste when he suggested motorists might consider filling up a “jerry can” and putting it in the garage, as well as filling up their tank.

However, it’s also clear that the government has had a strategy since the weekend – and well before the Tory funding allegations emerged – of encouraging stories which might persuade car drivers to stock up with petrol.

Tory folklore recalls that one reason Mrs Thatcher defeated the miners’ strikes of 1984 was because she had made contingency plans and built up coal stocks outside the mines.

Leadership Lessons

The news on Friday [30th April 2012] was that the proposed strike had been postponed. However, panic at the pumps continued into Saturday, with reports of bizarre and dangerous attempts to obtain and store petrol. An unsurprising leadership lesson: it is much easier to start a public panic than end one.


The remarkable Mr Galloway triumphs in Bradford West by-election

March 31, 2012

The charismatic politician George Galloway wins a remarkable by-election for his tiny Respect party in Bradford. His success resists simple analysis. A charismatic leadership style, campaigning focus, and voter disaffection with the major parties all appear to have contributed. Political clan politics, or Bradree, was also cited by members of the Muslim community

A BBC report stated the political statistics. Mr Galloway won the by-election by a staggering 10,140 votes, overturning a Labour majority of over 5,000 votes in the 2010 general election. The result came after a week in which the Government had suffered a series of PR blunders. The news turned the political spotlight away from the coalition, and back on the Labour opposition, and on Ed Milliband’s leadership credentials.

The celebrity candidate

The Guardian claimed to be the only newspaper at the by-election count:

Those who voted for Galloway tended to have a number of things in common. They were either a first-time voter or a disaffected Labourite, and all wanted to congratulate him on his robust stance against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many said they watched him on Press TV, the English language Iranian-controlled channel until it was taken off air by the government earlier this year. .

More still had watched YouTube clips of Galloway ripping into his detractors, whether in front of the US senate in 2005 or in a classically adversarial interview with Sky News about Gaza. Galloway proudly refers to these as his “greatest hits”. Only a handful recognised him primarily from his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2006, when he dressed in a red unitard and pretended to be [actress] Rula Lenska’s pussy cat.

Bradree

The Guardian also offered a diagnosis of the defection of the Muslim vote from the Muslim labour candidate:

A common theme on the stump was frustration at clan politics in Bradford, known by the Urdu word Bradree or Biradiri, meaning brotherhood or family, which here has become a byword for exclusivity.

Many felt that too many important decisions were taken in Bradford by a small number of Pakistanis who came from Mirpur, a small town in Kashmir, who had carved up the most important Labour party positions between them over the years.

The Labour candidate in the byelection seemed to fit into that mould. Imran Hussain, a 34-year-old barrister from Bradford with Mirpur heritage, was following in his father’s footsteps when he became involved in the local Labour party, rising two years ago to become deputy leader of the city council.

Great Expectations

Voters appear to have been swept up in George Galloway’s rhetoric. The result was hugely influenced by Labour defections and by first-time voters from the Muslim community. But there must have been a further contribution from the votes of defectors from all other political parties as well.

To be continued